HRW accuses Rabat of using jail threat to silence critics

2 min

Rabat (AFP)

Human rights groups called Wednesday for the release of at least 10 Moroccan citizens arrested and prosecuted over the past five months who "did nothing but peacefully express critical opinions".

Those arrested include students, artists, citizen journalists and social media commentators, Human Rights Watch and the Moroccan Association for Human Rights said.

They face such charges as showing a "lack of due respect for the king", "defaming state institutions" and "offending public officials".

"Some have targeted the wealth and lifestyle of King Mohammed VI, contrasting it with what they perceive as the state's failure to guarantee basic rights and economic opportunities for young Moroccans," the rights groups said in a joint statement.

"Others encouraged people to participate in protests against socio-economic injustice."

The rights groups said the Moroccan authorities were carrying out prosecutions under the criminal law rather than the four-year-old Press and Publications Law to enable the courts to hand down prison sentences where they saw fit.

"An increasing number of Moroccans are taking to social media to express bold political opinions, including about the king, as is their right," said HRW's Middle East and North Africa communications director, Ahmed Benchemsi.

"As self-censorship erodes, the authorities have stepped in to frantically try to reinstate the red lines."

A campaign called #freekoulchi (free them all) was recently launched on Twitter to denounce the wave of prosecutions.

Asked about the prosecutions last month, government spokesman Hassan Abyaba insisted "the human rights situation in Morocco is not regressing".

He said there was a distinction between "those who express themselves freely and those who commit crimes punishable by law".

HRW said that in partnership with the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, it was launching a list of free speech cases that it would keep regularly updated.

Among those already on the list are the operators of popular YouTube channels "Moul Kaskita" and "We Love You, Morocco", who were sentenced to four and three years in prison, respectively, for showing disrespect to the king.

Another is Omar Radi, a journalist who faces up to a year in prison for criticising a judge in a tweet.

In April last year, Radi criticised judge Lahcen Tolfi after he upheld sentences of up to 20 years in jail against leaders of a protest movement that rocked the country in 2016 and 2017.

"Expressing nonviolent opinions should never be a crime sanctioned by prison terms," said Moroccan Association for Human Rights secretary general Youssef Raissouni.